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It’s OK to be excited about (what looks like) improvement

It would appear that the Patriots are making progress on fixing what clearly didn’t work last year. We think that is good.

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Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Imagine, if you will, hopping in the DeLorean and setting the destination to December 30, 2022. You find your 2022 self and say, “Hey! Good news and bad news: in the future, we lose the season opener, but we’ll also be converting first downs at a 2-to-1 clip!”. Sheesh, if you heard that stat after the Jets game last year, that kind of chain-moving would sound downright Mahomes-ian.

Realistically, this entire article could be, “Dude. The New England Patriots, who more often than not last season looked like somewhere in between the guys from Superbad and American Pie when they finally got a chance with a girl, just went punch-for-punch in all three phases with the team that made it to the Super Bowl, the consensus second-best team in the NFC, and damn near finished the job. In Week 1. What are y’all complaining about?”

We got time today, though, and with some of the numbers and advanced stats and yes, Pro Football Focus grades rolling in from this weekend’s action, while the Patriots may not be John Wick Back yet, they are very much in some state of being Back.

Let’s start with the first down conversion stat we hinted at earlier. Aside from the “well yeah, clearly moving the chains is generally conducive to winning football games” aspect of it, we all watched this team play PatriciaBall last year. I watch this team to see freak athletes doing some of the most outrageous feats of athleticism the human mind can be privileged enough to witness. I don’t need the New England Patriots giving me flashbacks to learning how to drive stick-shift in a Subaru Outback that was older than my younger brother.

Here’s the goods, courtesy of Pro Football Focus. It’s OK if your eyes instinctively look straight at the bottom of the graph trying to find the Patriots. I know mine did.

TL;DR The New England Patriots, who opened the season by giving up a field goal, a pick-six, and a DeVonta Smith red zone touchdown and therefore almost guaranteeing they’d have to go pass-heavy at least until they caught up — converted to a fresh set of downs roughly two thirds of the time. That’s not just all right, that was the 10th-best rate in football last weekend.

Want moar? Of course you do. In the same PFF article, they charted dropback outcomes, which is just a nerd’s way of saying “OK when you pass the ball, did things go good, or did things go bad?”

Spoiler alert: despite the aforementioned pick-six leaving a raw-kale taste in our mouths, the rest of the time when Mac dropped back to pass, he unloaded the ball on 89 percent of them, took two sacks, had one pass batted down at the line, and got a couple scrambles off for positive yardage both times. Notably, he didn’t throw the ball away at all, compared to 16 throwaways last year.

Now, granted, a lot of that can be chalked up to a game plan that we’ll get into in a second that featured lots of quick-hitters and plays that were clearly otherwise designed to help compensate for an offensive line that somehow ruled out both their 2022 first-round pick, Cole Strange, and their best veteran in right guard Michael Onwenu.

Still, though, looking at this through the lens of, “Did the Patriots improve between January 2023 and right now?”, imagine actually calling plays and sequences that take into account the talent you’re working with and trying to maximize what they do best? Who knew you were allowed to do that?!

Speaking of which, since scoring points is fun, let’s check in with our old pals Taylor Kyles and Brian Hines for some examples of how Bill O’Brien did some of the Bill O’Brien stuff we were all hoping and praying for.

Starting with this one: acting like you’re setting up a run by doing the thing you do all the time when it’s a run, and then throwing instead.

You guys like montages? I like montages. Everyone likes a montage. Check out how the guys are lining up in bunch sets and in various iterations of 11 personnel, 10 personnel, and even some empty formations (and pre-snap motion!) to force defenses to pick their poison and also clear out space for the intended receivers:

One last thing before we move on to the defense: the Patriots offense did all this without their ostensible No. 1 receiver, with DeVante Parker inactive due to knee injury, and against an Eagles defense that ranked sixth-last year in total defensive DVOA. Most of you nerds are probably familiar with DVOA at this point, but if you’re not, that basically means the Eagles defense was really, really good even when they played the other really good teams.

So, yeah. This isn’t beating up on the Lions defense last year. There might actually be something cooking here.

Anyway: that defense that was a hipster pick to be the NFL’s best going into the 2023 season? By and large, they delivered.

First off, the obvious; yeah, the box score says 25 points for Philly, but being that, obviously, seven of those points were an interception returned for a touchdown that the defense had nothing to do with, the defense only gave up 1 passing touchdown and 4 field goals to the team that finished third in the NFL in points per game in 2022. Not too shabby!

Want a defense that affects the quarterback? Despite Jalen Hurts doing his best prime Cam Newton impression on the first couple drives, the Patriots ended up sacking Hurts three times, hit him so hard that he coughed up the rock in a crucial situation, and believe it or not, held Jalen Hurts to well under 200 passing yards.

Want rookies pitching in? You’re in the right place.

Before we get to first-round blue-chipper Christian Gonzalez, grown man Keion White ended the day with four quarterback pressures and, according to the eyeball test, was this close to taking Jalen Hurts to the turf all four of those times. That’s with Keion only playing 23 defensive snaps (35%). For what it’s worth, that’s also against the offensive line the Pro Football Focus still ranks as the literal best offensive line in the NFL right now, even after Sunday’s game. This man is going to be, to our great delight, what the kids call “a PROBLEM”.

Now, for Christian Gonzalez: technically, he probably can’t lift Bill Belichick’s curse of drafting defensive backs, probably because he wasn’t drafted in the second round. But he sure did his best to prove otherwise. The Eagles tried to pick on the rookie early and often, and while A.J. Brown had 10 targets against Gonzalez and got his on seven of them for 71 yards, the young cornerback also was part of a team effort that limited Brown to 1.1 yards after the catch per reception.

But wait there’s more: Gonzalez logged a pass breakup (on fourth down, nonetheless) and of course, dragged Jalen Hurts to the turf on an extremely fun corner blitz. Maybe this is a personal problem, but going into the season, it felt like the hype on this kid was getting to ludicrous speed, like if he wasn’t at least Tredavious White or Denzel Ward right out of the gate, it’d be a disappointment. Turns out, no need to fret. If the dude can hang against the Eagles offense, ipso facto, he can hang with anyone.

Then, there’s the vets. Ja’Whaun Bentley is somehow still improving and also building a decent case as one of the meanest linebackers in the game:

Matthew Judon did Matthew Judon stuff:

Even Christian Barmore looks like he’s back to full strength, and full strength Christian Barmore is not a man to be tangled with:

We already noted Jabrill Peppers’ badassery. We could go on. You get the idea.

Let’s bring the point home instead. Last season, this team was brief flashes of genius almost entirely overshadowed by crippling moments of stupidity and generally showing a prodigious aptitude for being able to mess up toast. After 1 game this year, all this fanbase wanted was to see some baseline competency. A team that wouldn’t step on a rake. An offense that was reasonably proficient at scoring points, and special teams that could actually help the defense out with some decent field position here and there for a change. And a defense that fulfills its destiny as a throwback to the shutdown Patriots defenses of yore, but in a way that puts modern quarterbacks in a blender the same way they used to with Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

So, humbly, the “no moral victories” crowd can either try to relax, or go be happy being miserable. Rebuilds aren’t instant reboots. One draft class or a coordinator change almost never gives an entire team enough juice to go from a joke to.....whatever they call it when you’re not a joke, but you’re also not the Chiefs. A contender? A tough out? A team nobody wants to play?

Really, any of those sound pretty good.